In cases where the language is ambiguous with or without the comma, it is incumbent on the writer to formulate the sentence without the ambiguity altogether.
“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”
Opinions among writers and editors differ on whether to use the serial comma. In American English, a majority of style guides mandate use of the serial comma, including The MLA Style Manual, APA style, The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.
The Associated Press Stylebook and the Stylebook published by The Canadian Press for journalistic writing advise against it. It is used less often in British English, but some British style guides require it, including the Oxford University Press style manual. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, “Commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence … Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item … This practice is controversial and is known as the serial comma or Oxford comma, because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press.” Some use it only where necessary to avoid ambiguity, in contrast to such guides as Garner’s Modern American Usage, which advocate its routine use to avoid ambiguity.
- 1 Arguments for and against
- 2 Ambiguity
- 2.1 Resolving ambiguity
- 2.2 Creating ambiguity
- 2.3 Unresolved ambiguity
- 2.4 In general
- 3 Usage
- 4 Recommendations by style guides
- 4.1 Mainly American style guides supporting mandatory use
- 4.2 Mainly British style guides supporting mandatory use
- 4.3 Mainly British style guides opposing mandatory use
- 4.4 Mainly American style guides opposing mandatory use
- 4.5 Australian style guides opposing mandatory use
- 5 Other languages
- 6 References
Arguments for and against
Common arguments for consistent use of the serial comma:
- Use of the comma is consistent with conventional practice.
- It matches the spoken cadence of sentences better.
- It can resolve ambiguity (see examples below).
- Its use is consistent with other means of separating items in a list (for example, when semicolons are used to separate items, a semicolon is consistently included before the last item even when and or or is present).
- Its omission can suggest a stronger connection between the last two items in a series than actually exists.
Common arguments against consistent use of the serial comma:
- Use of the comma is inconsistent with conventional practice.
- The comma may introduce ambiguity (see examples below).
- It is redundant in a simple list because the and or the or is often meant to serve (by itself) to mark the logical separation between the final two items, unless the final two items are not truly separate items but are two parts of a compound single item.
- Where space is at a premium, the comma adds unnecessary bulk to the text.
Many sources are against both systematic use and systematic avoidance of the serial comma, making recommendations in a more nuanced way (see Usage and subsequent sections).
The style that always uses the serial comma may be less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the apocryphal book dedication quoted by Teresa Nielsen Hayden:
- To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as in apposition to my parents, leading the reader to believe that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. A comma before and removes the ambiguity:
- To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
But lists can also be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma, such as by changing the word order or by using other punctuation, or none, to introduce or delimit them (though the emphasis may thereby be changed):
- To God, Ayn Rand and my parents.
An example collected by Nielsen Hayden was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:
- Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
which may be taken to mean that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Haggard’s ex-wives. A serial comma would preclude this reading:
- Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.
- My usual breakfast is coffee, bacon and eggs and toast.
It is uncertain whether bacon and eggs, or eggs and toast, should be grouped together. Adding a serial comma removes this ambiguity. With a comma after eggs, the foods are:
- Bacon and eggs
With a comma after bacon:
- Eggs and toast
Writers who normally avoid the serial comma often use one in these circumstances, though sometimes re-ordering the elements of such a list can help as well.
In some circumstances the serial-comma convention can introduce ambiguity. An example would be a dedication reading:
- To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God
The serial comma after Ayn Rand creates ambiguity about the writer’s mother because it uses punctuation identical to that used for an appositive phrase, leaving it unclear whether this is a list of three entities (1, my mother; 2, Ayn Rand; and 3, God) or of only two entities (1, my mother, who is Ayn Rand; and 2, God). Without a serial comma, the above dedication would read: To my mother, Ayn Rand and God, a phrase ambiguous only if the reader accepts the interpretation my mother, who is both Ayn Rand and God. Other ways of eliminating the ambiguity are possible; for instance, additional prepositions could be used (To my mother, to Ayn Rand, and to God) or the order could be rearranged (To my mother, God, and Ayn Rand).
The Times once published an unintentionally humorous description of a Peter Ustinov documentary, noting that “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”[clarification needed] This would still be ambiguous if a serial comma were added, as Mandela could then be mistaken for a demigod, although he would be precluded from being a dildo collector.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.
This is ambiguous because it is unclear whether “a maid” is an appositive describing Betty, or the second in a list of three people. On the other hand, removing the final comma:
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook.
leaves the possibility that Betty is both a maid and a cook (with “a maid and a cook” read as a unit, in apposition to Betty). So in this case neither the serial-comma style nor the no-serial-comma style resolves the ambiguity. A writer who intends a list of three distinct people (Betty, maid, cook) may create an ambiguous sentence, regardless of whether the serial comma is adopted. Furthermore, if the reader is unaware of which convention is being used, both versions are always ambiguous.
These forms (among others) would remove the ambiguity:
- 1 person
- They went to Oregon with Betty, who was a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, both a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, their maid and cook.
- 2 persons
- They went to Oregon with Betty (a maid) and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty—a maid—and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and with a cook.
- They went to Oregon with the maid Betty and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with a cook and Betty, a maid.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid; and a cook.
- 3 persons
- They went to Oregon with Betty, as well as a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty and a maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with Betty, one maid and a cook.
- They went to Oregon with a maid, a cook, and Betty.
- They went with Betty to Oregon with a maid and a cook.
- The list x, y and z is unambiguous if y and z cannot be read as in apposition to x.
- Equally, x, y, and z is unambiguous if y cannot be read as in apposition to x.
- If neither y nor y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are unambiguous; but if y or y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are ambiguous.
- x and y and z is unambiguous if x and y and y and z cannot both be grouped.
In her popularized style guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss writes: “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
Journalists typically do not use the serial comma, possibly for economy of space. Journalistic style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against its use (see below).
The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the United States Government Printing Office, and most authorities on American English and Canadian English require the use of the serial comma. In British English use of the serial comma is not usual, although some authorities (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler’s Modern English Usage) do recommend it.
In Australia, Canada, and South Africa, the serial comma tends not to be used in non-academic publications unless its absence produces ambiguity. The Australian Government Publishing Service’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (6th edition, 2002) recommends against it, except “to ensure clarity” (p. 102).
Recommendations by style guides
Mainly American style guides supporting mandatory use
The following style guides support mandatory use of the serial comma:
- The United States Government Printing Office’s Style Manual
After each member within a series of three or more words, phrases, letters, or figures used with and, or, or nor.
- “red, white, and blue”
- “horses, mules, and cattle; but horses and mules and cattle”
- “by the bolt, by the yard, or in remnants”
- “a, b, and c”
- “neither snow, nor rain, nor heat”
- “2 days, 3 hours, and 4 minutes (series); but 70 years 11 months 6 days (age)”
- Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage: A Guide (Random House, 1981), pp. 397–401
What, then, are the arguments for omitting the last comma? Only one is cogent – the saving of space. In the narrow width of a newspaper column this saving counts for more than elsewhere, which is why the omission is so nearly universal in journalism. But here or anywhere one must question whether the advantage outweighs the confusion caused by the omission …
The recommendation here is that [writers] use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the common-sense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at a negligible cost
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2010), paragraph 6.18
When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma … should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage…
- “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.”
- “I want no ifs, ands, or buts.”
- “Their wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread and butter.”
- The Elements of Style (Strunk and White, 4th edition 1999), Rule 2
In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
- For example, “red, white, and blue.”
- The American Medical Association Manual of Style, 9th edition (1998) Chapter 6.2.1
Use a comma before the conjunction that precedes the last term in a series.
- “Outcomes result from a complex interaction of medical care and genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors.”
- “The physician, the nurse, and the family could not convince the patient to take his medication daily.”
- “While in the hospital, these patients required neuroleptics, maximal observation, and seclusion.”
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition (2010) Chapter 4.03
Use a comma between elements (including before and and or) in a series of three or more items.
- “the height, width, or depth”
- “in a study by Stacy, Newcomb, and Bentler”
- The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers (Council of Science Editors, 7th edition, 2006), Section 220.127.116.11
To separate the elements (words, phrases, clauses) of a simple series of more than 2 elements, including a comma before the closing “and” or “or” (the so-called serial comma). Routine use of the serial comma helps to prevent ambiguity.
- Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd edition (Oxford University Press, 2009), “Punctuation,” § D, “Comma”, p. 676
Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will — e.g.: “A and B, C and D, E and F[,] and G and H.”
- MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Modern Language Association 2008), paragraph 3.4.2.b
Use commas to separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series.
Mainly British style guides supporting mandatory use
- The Oxford Style Manual, 2002, Chapter 5, section 5.3 Comma
For a century it has been part of OUP style to retain or impose this last serial (or series) comma consistently, […] but it is commonly used by many other publishers both here and abroad, and forms a routine part of style in US and Canadian English. […] Given that the final comma is sometimes necessary to prevent ambiguity, it is logical to impose it uniformly, so as to obviate the need to pause and gauge each enumeration on the likelihood of its being misunderstood – especially since that likelihood is often more obvious to the reader than the writer. (pp. 121–122)
- MHRA Style Guide (Modern Humanities Research Association), 3rd edition (2013), paragraph 5.1
In an enumeration of three or more items, the practice in MHRA journals is to insert commas after all but the last item, to give equal weight to each enumerated element:
- “The University has departments of French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese within its Faculty of Arts.”
The conjunctions and and or without a preceding comma are understood as linking the parts of a single enumerated element:
- “The University has departments of French, German, Spanish and Portuguese, Czech and Polish, and Dutch.”
- “Comedians such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or Charlie Chaplin.”
Mainly British style guides opposing mandatory use
- The Times style manual
Avoid the so-called Oxford comma; say “he ate bread, butter and jam” rather than “he ate bread, butter, and jam”.
- The Economist Style Guide
Do not put a comma before and at the end of a sequence of items unless one of the items includes another and. Thus “The doctor suggested an aspirin, half a grapefruit and a cup of broth. But he ordered scrambled eggs, whisky and soda, and a selection from the trolley.”
- The Guardian Style Guide
A comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea), and sometimes it is essential:
I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling
I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling
- MHRA Style Guide (Modern Humanities Research Association), 3rd edition (2013), paragraph 5.1
The comma after the penultimate item may be omitted in books published by the MHRA, as long as the sense is clear.
- The Cambridge Guide to English Usage
In British practice there’s an Oxford/Cambridge divide…. In Canada and Australia the serial comma is recommended only to prevent ambiguity or misreading.
- University of Oxford Public Affairs Directorate Writing and Style Guide
Note that there is generally no comma between the penultimate item and ‘and’/’or’ – this is sometimes referred to as the ‘Oxford comma’. However, it is essential to use an Oxford comma if required to prevent ambiguity:
He took French, Spanish, and Maths A-levels.
I ate fish and chips, bread and jam, and ice cream. (icons as original)
Mainly American style guides opposing mandatory use
- The New York Times stylebook
In general, do not use a comma before and or or in a series: The snow stalled cars, buses and trains.
- The AP Stylebook
Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.
Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.
Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.
In the United States, the choice is between journalistic style (no serial comma) and “literary” style (with serial comma); consistent use of the serial comma is usually recommended for college writing.
Australian style guides opposing mandatory use
- The Australian Government Publishing Service’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers
A comma is used before and, or, or etc. in a list when its omission might either give rise to ambiguity or cause the last word or phrase to be construed with a preposition in the preceding phrase: “There were many expeditions, including those of Sturt, Mitchell, Burke and Wills, and Darling.” “The long days at work, the nights of intense study, and inadequate food eventually caused them serious health problems.” “The sea, the perfume of wisteria, or a summer lunch: any of these revived memories of an easier time.” “We needed to know how to get there, what time to get there, the number of participants, etc.”
Generally, however, a comma is not used before and, or or etc. in a list: “John, Warren and Peter came to dinner.” “Fruit, vegetables or cereals may be substituted.” “Why not hire your skis, boots, overpants etc.?”